Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born on this date, August 8, 1896, in Washington, D.C. She spent her early years north of the Mason-Dixon line, in D.C., Michigan, and Wisconsin. Marjorie began writing as a young girl, and continued writing into her post-college career, living in New York City, then Rochester, New York, and in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1928, Marjorie and her then-husband, Charles Rawlings, made a bold move and purchased a 72-acre plot of land, including an orange grove, in rural, north-central Florida. The land and its inhabitants enchanted Marjorie, and provided a rich source of inspiration for her writing for the rest of her life. Her neighbors across swamp and hammock were from old pioneer family stock, Florida Crackers who lived from the land, wavering perilously on what would have appeared to any outsider as the brink of abject poverty.
My love for Rawlings’s writing began in high school. Her descriptions of old, primitive Florida resonated with me, the Florida that I experienced growing up in a rural county. Her Florida matched mine: sandy road beds leading through palmetto scrub, shaded by the dark, curving branches of mossy live oaks; friends and family members who lived at the ends of those sandy roads in weathered-wood houses with darkened tin roofs, a clothesline in the side yard, chickens in a wire pen.
I’ve pulled out one of my copies of “Cross Creek” in the last few days, picking it up in the evenings to read a few chapters as Rawlings’s birthday approaches. It has been a long time since I indulged myself in the singular pleasure of reading my favorite author. Here is her accounting of traveling with a friend by horseback through the Florida backwoods of the 1930s:
“We entered the River Styx gently. Surely, death itself must come as quietly. The open fields, bright in the reality of sunlight, gave way easily to pine lands. The pines grew thicker, the sweet scent of their needles rising. The sunlight was spotty, the shadows of the tall trees wider. Here and there a live oak told of changing soil. Then, imperceptibly, we were in deep hammock. Coolness came in on us. The leaves of magnolia and bay trees shut out the sun, as all dark everlasting foliage must shut it out from the silent places of the dead. The hammock merged into cypress swamp. A trumpet vine dropped flamboyant flowers from a lone palm. The blossoms seemed gaudy funereal. There were no birds singing from the cypresses. No squirrels swung in and out of the sepulchral arches of the trees. Out of the dimly defined road a great white bird rose, flapping noiseless wings. It was huge, snow-white as an angel of death, with a wide black mourning band around the edge of the wings. I became aware that the soft dampness of the road had turned into a soft rippling. The whole floor of the forest was carpeted with amber-colored water, alive, moving with a slow, insidious current. We had entered the River Styx.”
Rawlings captured the essence of an old, forgotten wilderness in her writing, and the surprising thing is that it was not her native land. She easily fell into the category of “damned interloper,” a term I use frequently as I observe outsiders moving into the rural corners of my Florida, building stucco-covered McMansions in hideous housing subdivisions. But I’ve come to consider now that maybe that is what’s needed to fully appreciate and describe a place—the eyes of an outsider. Rawlings became immersed in a world that was exotic and foreign; she wrote sensitively about the people and the region, seeking and eventually winning acceptance as an insider. Without her fateful decision to buy a parcel of land in faraway Florida, we all would have missed the opportunity to experience the quiet seasons in the marshes and hammocks, the world of Jody and Flag, the song of the redbird in the scrub.
Augusta Fells Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, on Leap Day, February 29, 1892. Her life story has lain dormant for decades, the legacy she left in the world of art has been overlooked, forgotten. She was an important artist and educator during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. A recent exhibition, at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida, based on the research of and curation by Dr. Jeffreen Hayes, showcased Savage’s works along with the art produced by some of her students in the 1920s and 1930s. Among these students were Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, who went on to become well-known artists in the second half of the twentieth century. After closing in 2018, the exhibit traveled to New York, where it is currently showing at the New York Historical Society.
Savage’s story was featured on NPR today, and here is the link to the story.
I am grateful for the recent review of “Cracker Gothic” on All the Biscuits in Georgia. If you love the South, have lived in the South, or have roots in the South, you will enjoy this website. And here’s a shameless plug, since this is my website and I want you and your friends to find my little orange book: please spend a couple of minutes and read the review of “Cracker Gothic.”
While we’re on the topic of biscuits, let me take this opportunity to opine about the meal that I would probably choose as my last, if it ever comes to that: I’d ask for hot buttered biscuits, sopped in molasses. One of my earliest food-related memories is of being scooped up into my father’s lap at the head of the table, after a meal of fried chicken or pork chops and biscuits. More often than not, those biscuits came from a shiny blue cardboard Pillsbury can, popped open and laid out on a cookie sheet, perfectly uniform cylinders of pale dough. So unlike scratch biscuits with a tender and crumbly interior, these bread products were a construction of mechanically produced mini-layers of dough. Or the biscuits might have been baked from that other convenience food product of the 1960s and 70s—Bisquick. Clumpy flour measured from a cardboard box straight into a bowl, mixed with milk, and scraped from a large spoon into golfball sized blobs. After supper, Dad would pour a puddle of dark molasses in the middle of his dinner plate and place a pat-sized slice of margarine in the middle. With his fork, he’d work the margarine into the molasses, creating a caramel-colored pool, with small bits of yellow floating about. We would then commence, together, to drag our biscuits through the molasses, lifting the dripping morsels into our mouths.
The following biscuit recipe comes from the Jarrett House Cookbook that I purchased at the historic inn in Dillsboro, North Carolina. This recipe produces consistently fluffy, high-rising biscuits, and I’ve used it for over thirty years. My daughter uses this recipe now, and her biscuits are even better than the ones I make.
2 cups plus about 1/4 cup self-rising flour (I prefer White Lily)
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening
½ cup milk
½ cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425. Cut the shortening into the 2 cups flour, working with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in both milks with a fork, and blend well. Transfer dough onto a well-floured board and fold/knead for a few minutes, until the mixture keeps an intact shape and stays firm. You will likely have to add a extra flour while kneading, because this makes a wet dough (up to ¼ cup more flour).
Pat or roll out dough to about ½ inch thick. Cut biscuits with a biscuit-cutter, and place on ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 9 minutes, or until golden brown on top.
These biscuits are best enjoyed hot, buttered, sopped through molasses, while sitting on your daddy’s knee.
What does art do for you? I was recently asked that question as it pertains to my writing. The assumption of the person asking the question was that my writing somehow qualifies as Art. Capital A. And therefore I should be able to articulate some easy correlation between what and how I write, and how my life intersects with Art, with a capital A.
My first inclination was to immediately deny that what I do is Art, and that would mean this interview question could become problematic, pretty quickly. I am not widely published. I don’t manage to write full time. As a way to deflect the question from me, I considered forming a response about the authors I love, the literature that I find meaningful, the books that I turn to when I indulge myself with time to read. My favorites, the women writers who achieved the literary greatness that I can only dream of: Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Conner, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
Despite my attempt to provide a weak, predictable response—here are the writers I love, here are the books I love—the question was asking something else of me. It would not be satisfied with a watered-down answer. What does art do for me? Surprisingly, I kept coming back to how much I am particularly moved by visual art. But this was an interview about my writing. How does visual art have anything to do with my words? Words, language, lines of tidy symbols on paper—these are the tools with which I am most comfortable when I meagerly consider what I do to even approach Art. Why did my brain keep sliding sideways, over to visual art, try as I might to force it to stay focused on words, lines, language, books, authors? My brain insisted on another train of thought: what was my experience with visual art, visual Art?
I grew up in a tiny southern town with loving parents of modest means, not educated beyond high school. There was an art museum in the city thirty miles away, and my parents, the post office clerk and school bookkeeper, put my brother and me in the car several times during our childhood, and drove us to that museum. There were large, quiet rooms, paintings on walls, proper adults in fine clothing. Nothing specific comes to mind from those visits, but they did happen. Our parents took us out of our small rural town to an art museum.
I have taken art museums for granted during my adult years, without thinking back to how that early experience must have been formative. I’ve been to the British Museum in London, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago—probably my favorite. When I go to an exhibit at a museum, no matter if it is a grand and famous institution, or just a small collection on display, often something happens inside of me, a welling up, a deep resonance. It presents itself in physical ways: a chill, tears in my eyes, an expansiveness in my chest cavity. And it’s not necessarily when I visit exhibits of artists who are famous, so I don’t think it is some type of bias toward well-known artists and their pieces. Not a star-struck reaction. There have been plenty of times I have walked out of an exhibit at a museum, a library, a public hall, and fought off the desire to lie down on the lawn out front of the building and weep. My parents planted that seed, and I never acknowledged it, not until this interview in 2019. What did art do for my parents that I never realized? What does art do for me?
I saw the William Christenberry exhibit at Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 2010. I had never heard of Christenberry before visiting this exhibit. He was an artist and photographer whose lifework centered around simple photographs taken in the rural South, primarily in Alabama. He documented the decay of roadside scenes with an old Brownie camera. His art frequently called out racial injustice, violence, and bigotry. Shacks and tumble-down buildings surrounded by overgrown weeds, cemeteries with primitive grave markers, rusting metal signs on roadside poles. I remember walking around and around in the empty exhibit hall that afternoon, looking at every piece intently, feeling the need to burn all of it into my memory, and the near-panic that I felt, knowing that I would need to leave. That I could not stay in that hall and continue to exist in the space that held those prints on the walls. That my time in the presence of those pieces was finite. This was Art, made from the love of simple and often-overlooked scenes, but elevated, and speaking a message, a truth. Those images aligned with something in my soul that day, fanned a flame within me, because the direction for the writing about my Southern home, my heart-place, emerged soon after that. I wrote essays, I dropped deeply into old memories of home, I opened my eyes and soul to a more compassionate rendering of the stories I was weaving together.
What does art do for me? More than I realized, and it has more to do with my writing than I imagined. Visual art fills my heart. It challenges my thinking to connect abstract ideas. Invites me into the soul of the artist, then pushes me into the souls of others, encouraging me to go with the perspective of the artist. Makes me laugh. Makes me think, hard. Makes me want to write. Makes me cry.
What does art do for you?
(Some of the content of this entry came from an interview published in the May 2, 2019 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, Winston-Salem, North Carolina)
The class from my years at Clay High School in Green Cove Springs that had the longest-lasting effect on me was EH101, a dual credit college-level English course that I took my senior year. Our teacher was Coach Robert DeWitt. Coach DeWitt not only taught English, he was the boys’ basketball coach, a published and award-winning poet, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who had fought in the Normandy invasion of Omaha Beach. He was a large man, tall and bulky, with a graying-blonde comb-over, frequently a quiet smile on his face and a bit of twinkle in his eye. I doubt that most of us who knew him as a coach and English teacher ever fully appreciated what his life had been like before we knew him, and what it was like outside the walls of our high school.
Nonetheless, EH101 stuck with me, and I am ever grateful to Coach DeWitt for introducing me to the study of Greek and Latin roots of the English language. It sparked in me a lifetime fascination with etymology, the study of word origins (not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects…not interested so much in that, thank you very much). I love learning about the roots of words, odd words, extinct words, idioms, colloquialisms, euphemisms, portmanteaus. One of my regrets in life is that I did not embrace this interest early on and pursue it as a vocation. But I do get a lot of joy from reading books about where our words come from, and more recently I’ve taken up listening to podcasts on the topic.
A Way with Words, Lexicon Valley, and The History of English are some of my favorite podcasts that delve into all things word-nerdy. A relatively new podcast I’ve just discovered is Something Rhymes With Purple, hosted by two Brits – Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth. Listening to their podcast is like eavesdropping on a couple of friends who are chatting whilst sipping Earl Gray tea, in a cozy thatch-roofed cottage nestled in the English countryside. But these two are not uptight, prudish, overly academic word scientists. They have a lot of fun with these podcasts. The episode entitled “Lalochezia” deals exclusively with swear words. For example, you might ponder where the phrase “fornicate under consent of the king” might lead, in a strictly etymological sense, of course. And in case you wondered (I certainly did), lalochezia refers to the exhilarating sense of physical release that one feels upon spewing profanity.
At the end of each episode, Ms. Dent shares a few of her favorite and very obscure words. Two that she mentions together are bang-a-bonk and gongoozle. I will demonstrate their usage here: When I am in Green Cove Springs, I love to bang-a-bonk at Spring Park while I fondly gongoozle the St. Johns River. It usually depends on the weather, but I try to both bang-a-bonk and gongoozle at least once every day. Based on what I’ve seen, there are a lot of people who take the opportunity to bang-a-bonk at the park, especially now that the city has installed new heavy-duty bench swings along the river bank. Once bang-a-bonking is underway in the swings, it’s usually followed by prolonged gongoozling sessions. Sometimes bang-a-bonking and gongoozling occur simultaneously, but it seems to depend entirely on personal taste.
Bang-a-bonk means to sit lazily on a riverbank.
Gongoozle is to observe things idly, and in particular to enjoy watching a body of water and passing boats.
Coach DeWitt wrote poems about the St. Johns River, and I’ll share some of them in a later post. I like to think that he, of all people, would have appreciated the idea of bang-a-bonking near the edge of this magnificent river, gongoozling while poetic lines about sky and water, birdcalls, lapping waves and sailboats drifted through his thoughts and onto paper.
The Okefenokee Swamp covers almost a half-million acres in south Georgia, spilling over the state line into north Florida. It is a vast and imposing wilderness, and has been a protected National Wildlife Refuge since 1937. Before that, it was also home to Swampers, Crackers, people who were social outliers. My ancestors. The Chesser Island Homestead is a preserved 19th-century Cracker structure hidden deep within the Swamp, open to the public, where visitors can experience what life for Swamp pioneers might have been like. When the Okefenokee became federally protected property, the residents within the Swamp were forced to leave, relocating to nearby towns, deserting the life and livelihood they had known for generations. Some of the Chessers traveled into northern Florida, where I was born, creating my ancestral line back to the Swamp. I did not visit the Okefenokee Swamp nor Chesser Island until I was well into my adult years, but I have come to love and appreciate its beauty, its serenity, and the sense of primeval wisdom that I feel whenever I am there. Connecting back to an actual ancestral home in a primitive place became an important touchstone as I wrote my memoir. These were not people of means or any type of societal stature. But they were resilient and resourceful, much like pioneers who settled in other frontiers of our country: the Appalachian mountains, the far West. I am proud for their blood to run through my veins. I am proud that a Swamp runs through my memoir.
This is Spring Park in Green Cove Springs. The water feeds from the spring boil into the pool, flows out the deep end into a waterfall, then meanders to the river in the spring run. I cobbled together three short clips to make this video, so it’s not exactly professional grade. But it has music!
The water that emerges from the spring has a high sulfur content, and on most days, even the area surrounding the park has a particular “aroma,” often compared to rotten eggs. If you grew up drinking sulfur water, you might actually prefer stinky water to bland, filtrated water. I sure do. Spring Park has always been a popular place for people to gather, to sit under the huge oak trees, gaze into the dark turquoise-colored spring, enjoy cooling breezes from the river. My parents met at the Park on a blind date, so my origin story is tied to this spring, where clear water bubbles up from the earth. Sulfur water, with its distinct taste and smell, runs through my memoir.